Although it’s often short on details, every now and again a Bible story will offer up a little morsel that reminds us that these sacred stories were first lived by real people before they were told and became Scripture.
Here’s one. When Nathanael’s friends come and tell him they’ve found the Messiah, he has a specific response. “He’s from where?” Whatever Nathanael knew about Nazareth didn’t impress him much. Think about how someone from New York City might react to, say, a vice-presidential nominee from, say, a lightly-populated state out west or something…
Anyway, Nathanael goes with his friends to see this Messiah, probably for the same reason people would go see a talking dog – they don’t expect the dog to speak well, but it’s kind of entertaining to watch it speak at all. Jesus surprises him, and welcomes him with a phrase that probably means something like, “Well, here’s a fellow who says what he thinks and no beating around the bush!” Nathanael is surprised and asks how Jesus knows that about him. Jesus says he saw Nathanael under the fig tree when he was talking with Philip. The vision convinces Nathanael that Jesus is everything Philip had said he was.
“That convinced you? Well, you will see greater things than that before it’s all said and done,” Jesus says. “You will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” a phrase that would remind any properly-educated Jewish person of the same idea in Jacob’s vision of God at Bethel.
So is that how God works? You need a little sign to believe in him, then he uses a little sign. You need a bigger sign, then God uses a bigger one. Well, maybe. We do know that God reaches out to us in ways that get to us right where we are. He deals with our understanding, our knowledge and our culture the way they are so that we can know him and begin a relationship that lets us know him more.
But I don’t know that God has classifications of miracles to use in certain situations. Person A can get by with a garden-variety miracle, but Person B needs a Quarter-Pounder version and Person C needs a super-sized Whopper (McDonald’s and Burger King in my metaphor? I’m ecumenical!). Person A may start to grumble about getting a smaller miracle than the others.
Plus, remember what Jesus tells Thomas at the end of this very gospel: Blessed are those who have not seen and who still believe. There are many people who will never see a sign from God at all, but they will still believe in him.
And that’s something I need to think of when I get caught up in discussions about proving things about God or proving God exists or similar debates. I might think of what I have to say – personal testimony or persuasive arguments from philosophers and theologians – as evidence or even proof God exists. But that’s not so.
After all, any God I could prove existed wouldn’t be much of a God if he were limited to what human beings could understand about him. And even if I back off and call these things evidence I’m probably overstating my case some. What I have, whether it’s from my own thoughts and experience or from someone else’s I respect, is testimony. Powerful testimony perhaps, logical testimony maybe, well-documented and agreed-upon testimony, but testimony nonetheless. Not proof, just testimony that someone else can accept or reject.
See, our decision to follow God is just that – a decision. God exists or he doesn’t. We choose one of those two paths, for whatever reasons we care to use. Jesus is Lord or he isn’t. We choose which of those we hold to be true, again, for whatever reasons seem good to us.
Nathanael could have chosen to believe his buddies ratted him out for his Nazareth snark, and that’s how Jesus knew what he’d said. But he chose to believe that Jesus had seen him, and that led him to believe Jesus was the Messiah. He switched worldviews – from “Nothing much comes from from Nazareth Nowheresville” to “This man is the Messiah!” Jesus tells him he will now see greater things than these, and I believe Nathanael will now see those things because of his worldview switch.
Although Jesus is his Savior no matter what Nathanael does, ol’ Nate will come to know him that way because he’s chosen to accept him that way. Jesus’ vision is enough for him, but it wouldn’t be enough if he decided Jesus wasn’t who he said he was. The religious leaders saw the same things Nathanael saw and they chose to view Jesus as trouble, because they would not accept Jesus as Messiah.
Our choice affects our worldview in a similar way. If we reject the idea of God, we might look at all the trouble in the world and all the trouble God’s supposed followers have caused and see that as proof we’ve made the right choice – and it almost always works that way instead of the other way around, no matter what folks might say. But if we accept the idea of God, then we look at the world and we see what’s good in it and we see what good things people who claim God’s name have done, too. And again, it happens that way around rather than the other.
Nathanael’s decision shaped his view of the world. Our decision shapes ours – and if we choose to view the world through the eyes of faith in Christ, we will indeed see and hear greater things than these.
And that sounds like good news to me.